SEPTEMBER 20, 2022
THE FUTURE OF MUSIC FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
Musician Steve Balbi and engineer Dr Jordan Nguyen spoke to Shane Lee on his Lunch with Lee podcast about their incredible project that enabled a woman with cerebral palsy to play music with her eyes.
Dr Nguyen has dedicated his career to helping improve the lives of people living with disabilities. After an injury scare in his early 20s, Nguyen has worked on life-changing projects that allow people with disabilities to live a fuller life. He was part of a team that designed the first wheelchair that could be moved with the power of the user’s mind.
Talking about his history, Nguyen said, “I was stuck in bed, laying down on my back, and had a day and a half of reflecting on the things I took for granted. I didn’t know if I was going to get up again; I couldn’t even get up onto my side.”
“This was a long time ago and what it led me to do was to start looking into disability statistics. I found out one in five Australians have some form of disability, one in 16 have severe or profound.”
In 2014, Dr Nguyen attended one of Steve Balbi’s gigs with Jess Irwin. Irwin, who has cerebral palsy, had a clear creative streak but there were no musical instruments at the time that would allow her to be on stage. Nguyen took up the challenge to change that.
Balbi, best known for his time in Australian bands Noiseworks and Electric Hippies, is full of awe for Nguyen’s work. He said, “I think creativity is the most important thing in humanity. We need to create, to keep creating. That’s what Dr Jordan has are these ideas. The next thing you know, from his ideas, action. And then, all of a sudden, a person with a disability can play music.”
Nguyen worked to create an instrument that Irwin could use with eye tracking technology. She was trained by musicians in the Australia Piano Quartet and performed at the Sydney Opera House. Her dream, however, was to play with Balbi.
That dream became a reality in 2017 and now the pair have recorded a song, Winners, together.
Speaking of the recording period, Balbi said, “To put it really simply, I wrote this song and then what the device does, we get the piano chords, and Jess puts it into a piechart. Then, with her eyes, she can trigger whether it’s a C chord, F chord, whatever. She can basically be the piano player. It’s quite amazing. It’s like how a lot of rappers and a lot of modern artists actually perform.”
“So the song Winners, the spine of it is everyone’s a winner and everybody loses, but this girl in particular just puts us to shame.”
The podcast episode can be listened to here: https://play.acast.com/s/lunch-with-lee/lunch-with-steve-balbi-and-dr-jordan-nguyen
About Lunch with Lee
In Lunch with Lee, former Australian cricketer Shane Lee sits down with local and international guests who have reached the top of their fields. They share stories about the highs and lows of life.
Podcast episodes released every Monday.